American Authors

American Authors

American Authors

What do writers who are mostly famous for their works of prose fiction have to say and how do they necessarily speak their minds differently when they’re writing essays instead of novels? What can this kind of ambidexterity teach us about why some thoughts need to be novels while other thoughts really just need to be essays? Do the essays of novelists have a certain “je ne sais quoi” that the essays of those who, perhaps, have never written a novel seem to lack? Can a novel begin as an essay? What essay has a writer’s own novel inspired that writer to pen after the novel’s publication? What can these essays teach us about experimenting, thinking, assembling, preparing, and organizing our way toward clearheaded and ethical actions in the real world? These are some of the questions that we’ll answer throughout the course of the semester as we read essays by James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, Truman Capote, and others.

A long tradition of thought endows poetry – derived from the Greek word poiesis, meaning “to make” – with the privilege not just to reflect the social world, but to shape it after its own beautiful image. By this understanding, poetry is naturally suited to utopian imaginings. But in a good deal of modern English-language poetry, poets’ utopian aspirations confront the intractable matter of the world that they would transform or recreate. In the midst of ruins, their poetry explores and seeks to extend the limits of its efficacy to make the world new. We will begin with some poetry of the previous century that responds to contemporary revolutions in America, France, and Haiti. Starting from the modern utopian experiments of the Romantic era, we will then read mainly 20th-century poetry, both utopian and dystopian, by poets including W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Langston Hughes, Wallace Stevens, Allen Ginsberg, Diane di Prima, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, as well as the work of some contemporaries.

Famously, the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi recounts that one day he fell asleep and dreamed he was a butterfly. When he awoke, he was no longer certain whether he was a man who dreamed he was a butterfly – or a butterfly who dreamed he was a man. In this course, we will walk this double line of doubt and belief, asking how literature and film can be used to translate and interpret these moments of unconscious consciousness. Dreams could prophesy, bearing witness to divine intent, as in Genesis and Homer’s epics. Medieval visionary dream poems opened up experimental spaces, where visions of social, political, or personal change might come to fruition. Then, too, psychological interpretations of dreams – driven by Freudian criticism, or realized metaphorically on the screen, as in Nightmare on Elm Street or The Science of Sleep – offered a way to explore one’s own unrealized desires. We will consider stories by E.T.A Hoffmann, H.P. Lovecraft, Mary Shelley, and Franz Kafka; novels such as Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca; Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and contemporary works such as Yasutaka Tsutsui’s Paprika and Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers. Threaded throughout, we will explore such films as 8 ½, Spellbound, Mulholland Drive, and Brazil.